Weekly Nature Watch

Country View 11.5.16

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A golden glaze blazes across the hillsides and hedgerows, as the gorse, whin or furze – call it what you will – blazes forth a message that the entire landscape is truly stirring into glorious life. The welcome warmth of the sun, so evident at the start of a week which promised so much, was turned down a notch or two as over the course of a few short days, winds turned from a southerly direction, round a hundred and eighty degrees until they had transmogrified into northerlies. Mediterranean south was swapped for Arctic north again reminding us very firmly, not to cast a clout! May is certainly not out just yet!

But those warmer days, besides turning our thoughts optimistically towards the lazy summer days which hopefully lie ahead, almost at the proverbial drop of a hat began the process of transforming the fast greening local woodland floors to blue. That stunning carpet of blue and of course the delicious scent that emanates from what we might call wild hyacinths but which more universally are known as bluebells, is as the song says, the very epitome of ‘flowers in May’.

We are currently in a particularly dry spell after a prolonged spell of wet weather, which stretched from last summer and through the winter, when a seemingly never ending sequence of storms roared in from the Atlantic. That is I guess, the natural pattern of our weather and it is that susceptibility to wet weather that makes our landscape so naturally green. And yet, if we in Britain have an obsession with weather in general, we can be thankful for the presence of that ocean and the prevailing winds, especially when viewing the horrific television pictures from Canada. There I’m afraid, the golden glaze of the landscape is all too real, destructive … and hot!

Our hearts go out to those folk whose entire lives have been destroyed by the fearsome blazes. Furthermore, the toll on Canada’s rich wildlife must also be immense. So far no-one seems to know how these fires started and yet fire is so much a part of nature’s inevitable sequences of events, always has been and presumably always will. Not only is nature red in tooth and claw, it also from time to time as we have seen, destroys on what seems to us, a massive scale. Yet from such destruction, it is amazing how quickly new life can spring. After fire, the phoenix that is new life, soon naturally and miraculously rises. Nature knows that such events are the norm but human-kind perhaps, finds such events beyond understanding. Wildlife accepts such tragedies and simply, if slowly, restores itself. It is I suppose nature’s re-cycling process.

Indeed, the whole structure of natural life is based on of the inevitability of life following death as a means of continuity and survival. I was reminded of that brutal fact on the inspection of a clump of feathers in my garden. They were the few scattered remains of what had been a collared dove the life of which had been brought to a summary end by a sparrowhawk. Sparrowhawks are not well liked! Gamekeepers don’t like them for they do sometimes take game birds. Conveniently forgotten is the ludicrous number of pheasants, which in truth are aliens here (their origins lie in Asia), annually released into our countryside, which clearly creates an imbalance.

Even birdwatchers get hot under the collar when sparrowhawks strike to catch those attractive wee birds on which we spend inordinate amounts of money to attract to our gardens. Indeed, sparrowhawks have colonised many suburban areas throughout Britain to ‘cash in’ on the abundance of suitable prey that congregates in large numbers in bird friendly gardens. Thus ironically, are some birdwatchers among the ‘too many’ brigade which bewail the number of hawks currently patrolling gardens.

However, the plain fact is that if there were ‘too many’ hawks, there would inevitably soon be ‘too few’ small birds which are in any case already under pressure from changes in farming practises, the heavy use of pesticides and the continuing advancing tide of urbanisation. Those who glibly protest that there are too many of this or that species should understand that nature is far, far better than us at achieving proper balances. In fact, we are rather bad at that.

The hawk of course, labours under the handicap of being a particularly skilful, some might say brutal killer of those popular wee birds. Indeed here is a raptor which seems sometimes to employ ‘low cunning’ in its manner of hunting. It also has the effrontery to enter our ‘territory’ to do its ‘dirty work’ … before our very eyes! A close up view of a sparrowhawk further underlines the impression of a ‘hardened killer’. If the explosion of gorse gives the impression of fire, just take a look at the smouldering golden eyes of a sparrowhawk. Few birds can melt you so instantly with that stare; indeed the only comparable piercing glare I can cite is that of the even more fearsome and rarer goshawk.

The late lamented collared dove had been nailed by a vigorous wee male spar. Grey of back, chest barred, the male disports striking ruffous colouration on his underparts. He is substantially smaller than his mate, currently I’m sure, ensconced upon a clutch of eggs somewhere in a nest largely built by her and stationed securely in a suitable tree. Hawks sometimes lurk unobtrusively under the cover of vegetation before unleashing all the power and speed at their command in a sprint to run down a victim. Sparrowhawks are not marathon runners; they are sprinters. I once watched such a hawk explode like a bullet from a tree in pursuit of a meadow pipit. Often such a victim hardly knows what has hit it and the denouement is swift and final.

But this pipit had just enough time to see its attacker coming and took evasive action, dodging this way and that as the hawk struck. Twice the hawk made a run and twice the pipit dodged the lunging talons, at which point, the hawk gave up and returned swiftly to the tree from whence it had come where presumably it would re-charge its batteries and prepare itself for its next encounter of a feathered kind.  The ‘wham, bam’ approach to the essence of survival – killing to feed and therefore exist and flourish – is the way of the hawk. It can at one and the same time be both overt and covert.

Often you may spot a hawk flying low along a hedgerow in the hope of taking roosting birds by surprise and spooking them to leave their cover and make a run for it, Then the hawk will ‘hedge-hop’ and seize its panic stricken victim. I suppose its technique may be interpreted as brutal and somewhat savage compared with say the hovering kestrel which in time will drop on its furry prey. The fact that the kestrel largely kills the ‘not so nice’ wee furry creatures as opposed usually to the ‘nice wee’ birds, lets it off the hook. Sadly the kestrel is in serious decline but believe me there aren’t too many hawks!

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods